Ellena, the heroine of Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Italian’ (1797), is kidnapped to a convent to prevent her marriage to Vivaldi, a young aristocrat. He finds her and plots a daring rescue, taking advantage of a festive event held one night at the convent. Monks, nuns, pilgrims, and well-dressed dignitaries attend the gathering, a room-length partition segregating them by gender. Vivaldi disguises himself as a pilgrim, while Ellena dons a nun’s habit and veil. In order for the plan to succeed, they must identify each other through their costumes and across the dividing grate.
For Ellena, the terror of the moment exceeds the prospect of exposure and punishment: “Though she had taken a station near the grate, she had not courage indecorously to withdraw her veil before so many strangers.” When a man materialises on the other side of the partition, his face “partly muffled in his cloak, Ellena has no choice but to proceed: having reached the grate, ventured to lift her veil for one instant. The stranger, letting his cloak fall, thanked her with his eyes for her condescension, and she perceived, that he was not Vivaldi! Shocked at the interpretation, which might be given to a conduct apparently so improper, as much as by the disappointment, which Vivaldi’s absence occasioned, she was hastily retiring, when another stranger approached with quick steps, whom she instantly knew, by the grace and spirit of his air, to be Vivaldi; but, determined not to be exposed a second time to the possibility of a mistake, she waited silently for some further signal of his identity.”
To the reader swept up in the suspense of the plot, this brief exchange is almost unnoticeable. The stranger does not expose Ellena, and she and Vivaldi soon flee as planned. Her mistake remains only a social gaffe — embarrassing but carrying no real consequences. Why, then, did Ann Radcliffe include it?
The heroine who gravely ponders etiquette while running for her life is a peculiar feature of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic. Perhaps the best-known example occurs in Ann Radcliffe’s previous novel, ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) when Emily halts in mid-flight from the Castle of Udolpho to buy a hat because her bare head shocks the peasants. These moments possess unique hybridity, as though two very different narratives suddenly intersect and are straining against one another. Their incongruity evokes puzzlement, if not laughter: how can anyone fret about a bare head or a misunderstood gesture while fleeing captivity, rape, and death? However, the decorous management of the body is not a trivial matter, to the heroine or her creator. Neither is it extraneous to the kind of fiction Radcliffe produced: the ideology of the polite body and the challenges it presents to women are woven into the very fabric of her writing.
Although many scholars have noted Ann Radcliffe’s commitment to propriety, much remains to be understood about its impact on her Gothic, a genre whose sensationalism placed it in an uneasy relationship with “polite” eighteenth-century writing. This article examines Radcliffe’s portrayal of the body through the prism of decorum, and I begin by looking at the concept of “delicacy” as a code that seeks to regulate female interaction with the body’s verbal representations. The era’s conduct manuals alert female readers to the dangers of including even “innocent” aspects of corporeal life in public conversation. Exceeding the restrictions placed on sexual conduct and speech, the code of delicacy severely limits women’s ability to represent the body at all in language, a matter of obvious consequence for the woman writer. Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic, I then argue, is engaged in a two-tiered dialogue with this ideology.
The conventions of the Gothic genre vividly mirror the corporeal fantasies underwriting the code of bodily propriety; at the same time, Ann Radcliffe’s unique deployment of these conventions is itself shaped by the constraints of “delicate” authorship. I then focus on ‘The Italian,’ Ann Radcliffe’s response to Matthew Gregory Lewis’ ‘The Monk: A Romance’ (1796), whose scandalous treatment of the body was a challenge to her polite Gothic. In ‘The Italian,’ Ann Radcliffe explores the tension between the body and decorum on the level of plot, while also grappling with it in the act of writing. The result is a startlingly open commentary on the rationale of her artistic choices.
The positive/negative fantasy of the body within the code of propriety is writ large in the eighteenth-century Gothic, which likewise imagines the body as caught between two extreme formulations: a radically purified ideal and a scandalous, spectacular grotesque. In the plot formula popularised by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis, a supremely modest young woman, often veiled and secluded from society, experiences a series of threats against her physical integrity, so that the potential or actual violation of her virgin body holds near-hypnotic sway over the entire novel. The twin images of the intact body (veiled woman, virgin, nun) and the disrupted body (victim of rape, murder, or an unwanted marriage) find an amplifying correlation in the genre’s persistent tropes of enclosure (within castles, convents, and chambers) and its breaching (escape or infiltration).